MUNGO MacCALLUM. Trickle down.

Nov 1, 2016


The economic theory known as supply side is better known as trickle down, because it goes something like this.

You give large sums of money to those who already have it, because they know the best way to handle it – they will invest it rather than simply trouser the loot.

As a result, the benefits trickle down to the rest of the community in the form of more jobs, better productivity and higher wages and conditions. And there may even be a few drops left for those at the very bottom: everyone benefits.

The problem is that even if this happy formula works (and history has shown that it seldom does) it is manifestly unfair: the bulk of the cash splash is retained at the top and the rest of the hierarchy scramble to soak up as much of the rest as possible. As a result there is very little left at the bottom, so inequality increases.

But the good news is that the economy gets an immediate sugar hit, which delights the bean counters and the politicians who need as many favourable headlines as possible before the next election. For this reason, perhaps, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison embraced the idea of trickle down at the last budget: they offered mammoth, progressive tax cuts to the corporate sector and very little for anyone else.

In theory, this would boost jobs and growth, and although the initial cost to revenue would be considerable, in the end the dividends would drive down the deficit and we would all live happily ever after. Of course some of us would live more happily than others, but that’s the way it goes.

Unfortunately the voters did not buy it: understandably, they were deeply suspicious of the idea that the moguls would behave in such a far-sighted and even altruistic manner as the theory suggested. Their belief was that most would simply spend the funds on themselves and their lucky shareholders and would tell their customers to suck it up, as, unfortunately, has all too often been their wont. And importantly, the punters wanted their slice of the money now, not in some dim and improbable future.

So many of them locked in a more convincing trickle down theory of their own: the trickling down of Malcolm Turnbull’s approval rating. Interestingly, political trickle down has a lot in common with economic trickle down: the big hit starts right at the top.

The Prime Minister has suffered an immediate and potentially catastrophic fall in the polls, collapsing even below the level maintained by Tony Abbott before the leadership coup of last year. According to Newspoll, Turnbull’s disapproval is considerably worse than that of Bill Shorten, and although he is still leading Shorten as preferred Prime Minister, the gap is rapidly closing.

But so far, to the relief of his colleagues, his government is still clinging on. It is behind the opposition by four points in the two party preferred vote, and its primary vote is now under 40 per cent, but the public disillusionment with Turnbull himself has not yet filtered through to the party – well, not yet.

And that, Turnbull might well feel, is clearly unjust. After all, not all the stuff-ups have been his fault; there should be plenty of his dysfunctional crew to share the blame. Morrison, Christopher Pyne, Michael Keenan, Peter Dutton, Kelly O’Dwyer, George Brandis, George Christensen, the gone but not forgotten Eric Abetz and of course and always Tony Abbott – there are any number of potential punching bags. The buck might stop with him, but surely if the shit is hitting the fan, some of it should land on his colleagues.

The problem is that he can’t afford to say so; if he did, they might turn on him and make things even more difficult. So he will just have to wear it and accept the melancholy fact that, just as was the case with Abbott, he is the one risking dragging down his government to the point where the slide becomes irredeemable: the point where someone – anyone – is desperate enough to provoke a crisis.

Fortunately, this is still a fair distance away, if only because there is no real alternative. The appetite for a return to Abbott is confined to the lunar right and no other contenders are even in the picture. So Turnbull will continue to stumble on, flinging bandaids, nostrums and placebos in the hope that one of them will strike a chord with a seriously disengaged electorate.

Typical was last week’s speech by Morrison on housing affordability, in which the only remedy he could propose was that the states should release more residential land to developers. He had no ideas of his own: any suggestions that the commonwealth should be involved through fixing the tax regime had already been discounted as part of the election jihad on Shorten and his package of negative gearing and capital gains reform.

And even if the states were inclined to co-operate – and there is very little evidence of that – simply allowing more development is not the point. It is highly unlikely to appeal to first home buyers, who do not want more out of town properties with no amenities or transport that they actually need, even if they could afford them. Most of the time they can’t, because they would be outbid by investors who have absolutely no interest in actually living in the apartment blocks they own: they are far more concerned with moving into harbourside mansions in the manner of Malcolm Turnbull.

And now our preposterous Attorney-General, George Brandis, has announced yet another inquiry into Aboriginal custody – a brainstorm that even Turnbull’s own Indigenous Council Chairman, Warren Mundine, denounces as the idea of dickhead.

Turnbull and his ministers are more interested in generating headlines, however ephemeral, than in outcomes: as long as they are busy, as long as they are seen to be doing something, this is sufficient – at least for the moment. And when, and if, they actually get legislation through the senate, it will be spun as a triumph, in spite of the fact that it will either be unpopular with some sections of the public (like cutting parental leave schemes) or irrelevant to the vast bulk of them (like reinstating the Building and Construction Commission).

In the end they are concerned not with the quality of the government, but with the quantity of the media it can generate. Their only hope is not that they will make a major breakthrough, but that eventually, if they pile it on hard enough, something will trickle down.

Mungo MacCallum was a senior journalist for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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